Over the past few years, America Ferrera has accomplished a tremendous amount. She teamed up with her husband, actor and writer-director Ryan Piers Williams, and actor Wilmer Valderrama to cofound Harness, an organization that aims to support vulnerable communities through conversations meant to inspire action. She spoke in front of hundreds of thousands of people at the 2017 Women’s March in Washington, D.C. She became a founding member of Time’s Up, an organization addressing the systemic inequality and injustice women face in the workplace. She edited American Like Me, a book of essays from prominent figures about growing up between cultures. On top of all this, she’s been producing, starring on, and sometimes directing NBC’s hit show Superstore. Oh, and in May she gave birth to her son, Sebastian (Baz for short). So she’s dealing with that whole new-to-motherhood thing.
It’s a lot. But if you think this is going to be a story about how a busy modern woman finds balance, you’re wrong. Because focusing on how she juggles it all instead of her amazing work would be reductive.
For America, it was never an option not to fight for what she believes in. “I’ve always felt a very strong sense of right and wrong, of justice,” she explains, in between sips of her matcha latte at Dimes, an eclectic eatery in New York City. Even the 34-year-old’s acting roles are centered around telling stories that aren’t often told—from her first big role playing Ana in Real Women Have Curves, a movie about a teen girl carving her own path while still loving her immigrant roots, to the working-class Amy with real-life issues on Superstore.
Read on as America discusses being a new mom, body acceptance, and why she strives to make the world a better place.
First, congrats! You’re a relatively new mom. Was pregnancy anything like you expected?
It’s interesting. Every step of the way, everybody tells you what it’s going to be like and how you’re going to feel. I really think that is so harmful to so many of us. I decided early on that I wasn’t going to expect my experience to be what other people told me it would be like—good or bad. Every woman I know has a different experience of pregnancy and motherhood.
Has parenthood changed your relationship with your husband at all?
It’s absolutely changed us as individuals. It changes what we talk about and what we focus on. For so long, it’s been just the two of us, and we’ve had an amazing life together. I don’t know that either one of us could anticipate how much we love him and how it makes everything new again. We’ve traveled to many wonderful places, and we’ve seen many things—and just getting to imagine that somewhere down the line everything that we’ve already done and seen, Baz will be seeing for the first time…it’s amazing.
Post-pregnancy, where are you in the journey of how you feel about your body?
Being pregnant, I felt really powerful and healthy. You create life. I found so much power in that. In terms of my relationship to my body, I’m still breastfeeding, so it’s still very much in service of my son. There are parts of it that I love and also parts of it that are super challenging. I’m just now starting to feel like I want to feel strong in my body again. I didn’t work out as much as I imagined I would during my pregnancy. I was in triathlon shape when I got pregnant. I had so much on my plate and something had to give.
And when it comes to eating healthfully?
I have changed my relationship to food. I swore off scales a long time ago. More than anything, I just try to be aware of how does what I eat make me feel. Do I feel better? Do I feel energized? Does this make me tired and not feel great? I try to go easy on myself. I think that’s been one of the mantras for me in all of motherhood—to try and not be so hard on myself. Which is a challenge because, like so many women, I demand so much more of myself than I would ever demand of someone else.
You returned to work fairly soon after giving birth. Was it tough?
I took time off at the end of my pregnancy and shut out social media and kind of went off the grid. I needed that for myself. There was a part of me that was terrified that I might never care about anything else ever again. I got scared. I was like, “What if I’m not as driven?” But as I gave birth…it was the beginning of the family separation coming to public attention. When Baz was 2 or 3 weeks old, my friend started organizing. I spent the whole day topless in my apartment feeding my newborn, but had to be on the phone and help in whatever way I could. It was a relief to know that who I am at my core was not altered. Actually, that’s not true. It’s not accurate that I wasn’t altered. In a way, having him made everything more important.
You produce and star on NBC’s Superstore, and sometimes direct. What do you love about the show?
The show is unique to anything else that’s on television. It’s a show about working-class people and how this social-political moment we’re living in is affecting people’s lives. We get to do it in a funny, smart way. It’s like the opposite of escapism: How do we look at what’s true, but find a way to digest it? I love it.
You’re also a founding member of Time’s Up. What’s going on with the organization right now?
Time’s Up has been finding its foundation. There’s a new CEO. Turning it into an actual organism that can sustain and function has been the work [we’ve been doing] since we came out in this explosive way. There have been a number of women dedicating themselves entirely on a volunteer basis to creating that structure and figuring out how it sustains and grows, and what its role in the larger movement is.
On top of all this, you also edited American Like Me. What attracted you to the project?
It felt very urgent that our stories and narratives be shared. For me, immigration is such a broad issue. I never grew up seeing my American experience reflected back at me. I always felt 100 percent American—as if I bled red, white, and blue. I had to learn that others saw me as something different. I began to feel early on that I wasn’t sure where I belonged—feeling wholly American but also knowing that I was linked to my family’s culture and the country that my parents came from. Once it became clear to me that others saw me as different, I had to try to reconcile all the different demands and expectations from all the circles I ran in. That is an exhausting process and one where you never get to be quite sure what your identity is, because it’s based on what others are expecting of you versus truly knowing who you are in all of its complexity.
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Why did you dedicate the book to your son?
Because I feel like, to some extent, everything I do is informed by my earliest experiences in the world. So much of what I do now is about wanting to make it better so that the next generation can do and be so much more. Also, it heals something inside of me to be able to give what I never had—for him and for millions of other kids.
Because you have a public platform, do you feel you have a responsibility to use your voice for good?
I wouldn’t have a platform if I wasn’t representative of so many people who wanted to see themselves. My career started with Real Women Have Curves. Then Ugly Betty and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. These are all characters and worlds that had never been really seen and respected on-screen before. That’s what gave me my platform. So for me, it’s not separate from my career. I think we all have a responsibility, to a degree, to be thoughtful about the things we do and the things we create and the impact that those things have on the world.
You have a lot of irons in the fire. How do you stay well and practice self-care?
That’s a massive conversation within the activist community. There are people who wake up, day in and day out, and they are dealing with whatever crisis has come up in their community. It is exhausting, and it’s so important that we have the conversation about how to preserve ourselves so that we can keep showing up. I don’t have any easy answer to this. I heard [someone] say that it’s not a marathon; it’s a relay race. We’re in a community in which you can show up…and give everything you’ve got to give, and then it’s OK to pass the baton and rest and sleep and take care of yourself.
How have you personally avoided exhaustion?
I feel like I’ve been burning myself out for years. A mental shift that I’ve had recently is to not take it all on…. It’s
a generations-long battle of continuing to show up. So being kind to yourself and acknowledging I’m going to show up, because that’s what’s in my heart—to show up, without expectation that once and for all it’s going to be done.
Styling by Erica Cloud for the Only Agency; Hair by Aviva Perea using Oribe for Starworks Artists; Makeup by Sage Maitri using Marc Jacobs Beauty for TMG; Manicure by Sarah Chue using Chanel Le Vernis; Set design by Bryn Bowen for Streeters.
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